Don’t Bust My Crystal Balls: Spilled Milk #6
The more things change, the more they stay the same
It’s that time of year, so let’s talk about crystal balls.
I wrote this 11 years ago for a blog post on a local magazine’s website.
Here is what I think is disturbing about my work life, that the amazing groundswell of food adoration has morphed for many into unhealthy fetishism of the kind written about on Eater the other day. I think what many are responding to is a massive guilt pang from overindulgence of chef worship, ingredient provenance snobbery and other symptoms of culinary elitism. I love food, I love travel, I adore the many blessings in my life, and I appreciate the rarified air I get to breathe on some days … but what many of the people in the Borelli piece (which itself is kinda self indulgent) fail to acknowledge is that much of the backlash is a class issue. I find it maddening and oddly delusional to see and hear so many people debating issues like David Chang’s noodle bowl authenticity grade or whether or not Noma deserved to be the winner of the San Pellegrino Best Restaurant nod. I am talking about people who have never eaten in any of those restaurants. It’s a reflection of just how silly and obsessed we have become about food.
I sat at table recently and listened to several friends debate who is the better cook on Top Chef All Stars and I asked them if any one of them had ever tasted a dish prepared by any of these chefs? Silence. There is a big difference between shopping for good produce, learning all you can about cheese because you love it, attempting duck confit recipes over the weekend, arguing for food safety issues, and laying awake at night because the photos you took of all the food at the local gastro pub were under lit!
Most of the people, the vast majority of our fellow citizens have trouble making ends meet these days, let alone give a shit about getting a reservation at Animal, arguing about banchan, or debating the merits of verjus. Let’s not pretend that most of us are anything but lotus eaters, in the classic sense. And Borelli’s call for calm is really an admonition that many of us live by which is “if your head is occasionally in the clouds, you better know where your feet are planted.”
My New Years wish for everyone who considers themselves serious about food is to do something serious about one of these ideas that Jerusha Klemperer makes note of. The world would be a better place.
What does it say about me that not much has changed in the way I see the world? Covid has killed well over 800,000 Americans alone, and the fact that our enduring climate crisis will render our ecosystem unsustainable by 2050 is a REAL existential issue. 850 million people on our planet go to bed hungry every evening. So asking for restaurant and dining trends seems to ignore the very point we should be discussing, which is will we have restaurants in 20 years (I think we will) and what will they look like? That’s a subject perhaps for next week, but I think we will continue to have small specialist restaurants like the ones more prevalent in Japan and Korea: little 12-20 seaters that serve a very small menu featuring one type of item the restaurant is famous for. Think about going to a roast chicken restaurant for roast chicken, a barbecue shop for barbecue and a fried fish restaurant for fried fish. I believe the economics of our industry will dictate these changes unless we get our social equity and climate problems addressed in this country. The biggest X factor for me is the INCREDIBLE creative, smart leaders in the food community who will create solutions to problems, but I don’t believe any of us can perform miracles sufficient to change the results of just a few existential problems (like the climate crisis) on our supply chain as just one example. If there are no more blue crabs in the mid-Atlantic states and no immigration reform sufficient to find people to fish and pick and pack the crabs, then what limited supply there is will simply be consumed by the richest of our fellow citizens. They will be the only ones who can afford it.
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So, just for fun, I made a random list of prognostications that I believe in. Just read Jerusha Klemperer’s 11-year-old HuffPost piece if you want to understand that some people really do have a crystal ball that works. The jury is out on mine.
The cost of eating in restaurants will continue to go up.
Restaurants have been unsustainable micro-economies for 40 years, undercharging people for what’s on their plates but not what’s in their glasses. The cost of putting roast chicken and vegetables on a plate has gone up 1000 percent over the last 20 years. Restaurants have been unable to charge $30 for a chicken dish but have no issues charging $20 for a fancy specialty cocktail! Slowly over the next few years you will see menu prices rise and the number of offerings shrink as restaurants keep fewer people on staff to save $.
Reservations will cost money.
I do believe a Saturday night table at 7 is more valuable than a Wednesday night at 10 p.m. I also think popular restaurants should take credit cards as a guarantee against a reservation.
Tip systems have to change.
I am all for pooling, service charges, and tip elimination. The old system is simply untenable, rooted in racism and helps no one. Time for it to go.
“Closed Sunday and Monday” will become a familiar sign on many restaurant doors.
Being open seven days is simply untenable for a majority of independent restaurants. Some may only be open four days a week, with 10-hour days for employees and capping total hours at 40 a week.
“Please check out our homemade jams and jellies on your way out” is the type of thing you’ll hear a lot more.
Restaurants have to ring their registers at times other than lunch and dinner, and Covid taught everyone that selling pantry items, meal packs, to-go items, market items, even fresh meat and seafood helped pay the bills and more. Done properly, it’s a nifty profit center.
Restaurants will form co-op systems for food delivery services.
Why give such a huge percentage to a giant company that perpetuates an abusive, one-sided system? I used a local Minnesota service that consistently blamed delays on the restaurants. So I would call the restaurant and find that my order had been there for 45 minutes waiting for pickup. Restaurants banding together to deliver food and share the costs makes the most sense. And they should do same for buying the products they use most, from canned tomatoes to toilet paper. Co-ops can be invaluable to small neighborhood restaurants.
Specialty foods restaurants will increase in popularity.
People will be cooking more at home than ever before. So what will they go out for? FOOD THEY CAN’T MAKE THEMSELVES! So restaurants that cook everything over natural hardwood charcoal rotisserie, pizza parlors, sushi, Korean BBQ , all the stuff that MOST folks won’t or can't make at home will continue to be popular.
Your plate will look different.
Restaurants need to bring plate costs in line, which means you will be eating smaller portions of meat and more vegetables, legumes and grains than ever before. Preserved, pickled, cured and fermented foods will be on more menus than ever before for three reasons: First, it’s cheaper to smoke your own fish, cure your own meat, pickle your own cukes; secondly, these foods are loaded with umami and make everything taste better; and third, hobbyist cookery has always been fascinating to chefs, and now they have more incentive to make their own bacon instead of buying it. All of these types of foods allow restaurants to purchase ugly foods that are cheaper, bulk up on local heritage ingredients in season and take advantage of every dip in wholesale price they can. It’s also ultimately healthier for diners, and personal health is trending up among consumers, especially younger ones.
All the best,